Still made in the USA
May 10, 2010 | 7:00 pm CDT

Tom Seely Furniture in Berkeley Springs, W. Va., was doing fine when Gat Caperton bought it from its namesake in 1996. It had amassed decades of goodwill as well as name recognition for producing high-quality, all-wood, hand-built furniture. Sales at the time were running under $10 million.

That was good, but Caperton saw that things could be better. Much better.

Caperton immediately launched a three-point plan for the company, which included a marketing strategy aimed at educating buyers about the value of all-wood, hand-built furniture, shifting half of the company's craftsman tasks to a network of Amish and Mennonite shops and straightening out a manufacturing flow that Caperton still refers to as "spaghetti junction."

The result? In 2005 the company, now known as Caperton Furnitureworks, posted sales of $14 million, recently completed construction of a 12,000-square-foot finishing wing, and is projecting even higher sales for 2006.

Focusing on a niche

Furnitureworks offers three lines of all-wood, hand-built furniture. The largest line continues to be the Tom Seely Furniture group, often billed as antique reproductions. "These pieces don't just look like antiques," Caperton says, "They're built the way antiques were originally built."

Furnitureworks also offers the Gat Creek group, which features non-period specific traditional furniture. Most recently, Furnitureworks teamed with Joe Ruggiero of HGTV fame to create the Ruggiero Collection, a series of occasional pieces.

All furniture lines are hand built from solid wood. Cherry and oak are the primary species used, as well as some pine.

Caperton readily admits that focusing on the solid-wood, hand-built niche was a tactic intended to protect the company from larger domestic furniture manufacturers. Little did he realize that choice would also help protect the company from a tidal wave of imports from China.

"We have a niche that we've been able to maintain and we've differentiated ourselves from most other people," Caperton says. "Fortunately for us, it's a niche we've been able to keep as foreign competition has come in. They simply can't match our level of quality."

Special outsourcing

Another key component of Furnitureworks' success is its system of outsourcing. Approximately half of Furnitureworks' pieces are assembled off-site at one of nearly 40 Amish and Mennonite shops in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Lumber pieces for individual projects are bundled together and delivered to the off-site shops, and finished pieces are picked up and brought back to Furnitureworks for final sanding and finishing.

Seely started the outsourcing program in the early 1960s when he asked a local Mennonite farmer to duplicate an antique secretary during his off-season from farming. Over time, others inquired about building for Seely during the farming off-season to supplement their incomes. The practice continued even when the families moved to Ohio and Pennsylvania, as it proved to be a good deal for everyone involved.

Some of the Amish and Mennonite shops do not use any outside electricity, but rely instead on a diesel motor to compress oil and air that in turn powers their equipment. In some cases, shops do not have telephones, which can make communication with Berkeley Springs a slow process. However, quality issues with outside shops are rare, so on the few occasions when something needs attention, usually a message sent via the delivery truck will do the job.

Furnitureworks also outsources the building of its chairs to six local shops. "They build furniture the way we do," Caperton says. Once built, the chairs are brought to the factory for final finishing. About 1,500 chairs are kept in inventory, which is turned every three weeks.

Correcting manufacturing flow

Caperton's third major concern after purchasing the company was to be true to hand building the furniture while working in the most efficient way possible. As a result, he created a manufacturing flow that combines both the uniqueness of an individual's work together with the precision available through automated machinery.

Starting with a factory packed with excess inventory, Caperton's first hurdle was to shift the company away from batch construction to just-in-time methods. It took Caperton about seven months, but he managed to clear out excess inventory and dropped delivery time from 12-16 weeks to eight weeks.

Now all pieces are built to order and only one week's worth of FAS #1 raw lumber is delivered at a time. The lumber for each project is first rough cut to length on one of two chop saws, then it goes to a Mereen-Johnson straightline multiple rip saw. From there it goes to a Taylor clamp and a Weinig moulder.

Material then goes to a Northwood CNC router, which is one of the few automated pieces of equipment in the Furnitureworks plant. Caperton had first tried CNC technology with a CNT router in 2000 and was so pleased with the results that he purchased the Northwood CNC router in 2003. "It's fundamentally changed the way our operation works," Caperton says.

After cutting, all components are run through a Costa & Grissom three-head widebelt sander, then placed on a cart and delivered to a workbench where a furniture builder assembles the piece. At the Berkeley Springs facility there is only room for about a dozen furniture builders and their workbenches, which makes the outsourcing aspect of the operation all the more essential.

After receiving an order, the furniture builder sends a handwritten note to the customer, telling them about their background and thanking them for the order (builders in the Amish and Mennonite shops do the same). "We feel like it's one more thing we can do to give the furniture a personal touch," Caperton says. When the furniture builder is done with the piece he or she signs and dates the back.

Once pieces are built they are hand sanded and hand stained. Final sealing and topcoating is done on a Production Systems Inc. finishing line, the other large automated piece of equipment in the plant.

Environmental concerns

Environment and safety have been personal priorities for Caperton. When he purchased the company, HAPs exposure level was running between 60 and 70 percent of the OSHA recommended limit. In 2003, Furnitureworks was successful in getting that number down to two percent of the OSHA limit, and in 2005 the number dropped to one percent.

However, Furnitureworks' environmental efforts don't end there. The company makes a practice of purchasing all its lumber from providers that use sustainable harvesting practices. It gives its scrap wood to local artisans for carving and basket making and its sawdust and wood shavings to local farmers for livestock bedding. To minimize the use of cardboard boxes or Styrofoam fillers for packaging its furniture, Furnitureworks uses reusable packing blankets made from reclaimed fabrics for shipping.

Furnitureworks challenges

Looking ahead, Caperton mentions challenges that many companies are dealing with. "An ongoing challenge is to keep developing the right products and the right pricing so we're going to market effectively," Caperton says. "The biggest challenge to our bottom line is health care costs. They go up 15 percent per year and that can't be passed on to the consumer."

Caperton's personal goal is perhaps his biggest challenge: to double Furnitureworks' production without increasing the facility's amount of waste. Then again, his motivation is not surprising. "After all," he notes, "we live here."

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About the author
Ken Jennison

Ken Jennison was a senior editor at CabinetMaker and FDM magazines from 2006 to 2008, writing more than 70 articles about cabinet and furniture manufacturers. He is currently director of acquisitions at Hearland Historical Properties LLC in San Francisco.